Semiotics as Art: Kosuth

by | Ghent, Belgium

Sunday, 1 July 2012

tags: art & design, europe, fuzzy sets, semiotics


Joseph Kosuth, “one and three chairs” (1965)

The relationship between semiotics and art has always fascinated me. Talk to a museum director about the semiotics of art and there’s a chance you might get a sneer. Too eager to reach for the gun of “meaning”: “Art isn’t always about what it means”. Talk to a semiotician about the art of semiotics and there’s a chance you’ll get a sneer again. “it’s more science than it’s art, there’s a methodological approach”. Don’t get me wrong. The museum director has an interest in semiotics and has read up on it. The semiotician has an even more pronounced interest in art, having found that nearly all semiotic thinkers (s)he studied, at some point, tackled the ‘semiotics of art’. So there’s already that: the preposition used already conjures up a judgement of perspective. Semiotics in art, of art. What fascinates me even more though is semiotics as art. Numerous artists have done it. The best known in both spheres, as far as I can tell, is Joseph Kosuth. American conceptual artist, thinker & writer who brought us ‘One and three chairs’ in 1965. He was just 20 at the time. I’m quite certain you know it, have seen pictures of it or perhaps seen it live. The work presents itself in a threefold, with a life-size photograph of a chair, the actual chair in the same spot as it was photographed in and a blown-up photograph of a dictionary definition of the word ‘chair’. Admittedly I’m guilty of having used it in the past to explain what semiotics is all about. There are worse examples to explain signifié/signifiant/ référent with, but is there more to it?

Well, for one: it makes me smile.

It makes me smile every time I see it. Which is quite something in itself. It also makes me think about both art & semiotics, every time I see it. Apart from the numerous reproductions, I finally saw it for the first time live @ the London Frieze Art Fair in 2010. It didn’t have the chair from the photograph used here, but it was the same work. The actual work exists as a piece of paper with instructions how to install it and a copy of the dictionary definition ‘chair’ signed by J. Kosuth. It’s up to the curator or gallery owner to set up the work. In Kosuth’s own words:"It meant you could have an art work which was that idea of an art work, and its formal components weren't important." (1) Together with Marcel Duchamp, Kosuth is one of the godfathers of conceptual art, nay, of art as we know it today. The reason being their profound questioning of the relation between presentation, concept, idea, meaning. ‘One and three chairs’ became a seminal piece after Kosuth published “Art after philosophy” (you can read it on ubuweb here)

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context – as art – they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is a tautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art.”(2)

Kosuth investigates what it means to make art, to experience art, to think about art, to see it as a global model for language and culture. If you substitute the word ‘art’ in most of his writings by ‘sign’ you’ll find yourself reading a text on semiotics. Which for semioticians might not be such a revelation, but remember stating the obvious is always a retrospective action.

If one wanted to make a work of art devoid of meaning, it would be impossible because we’ve already given meaning to the work by indicating that it’s a work of art” (3)

At the time, Kosuth’s work raised a lot of questions and he got his fair share of criticism too, but that was what he was after. Raising questions. Using text as art was already questionable, using photography just as much, let alone using both in the set up discussed here. There’s a great focus in Kosuth’s work & writing on the ‘agency of the artist’ where the work of art is dependent upon the art context and the denomination as art by the artist. For me that’s semiosis, pure. A sign dependent on the context and its identification by the user, with the user as its relational agent. Where Kosuth quotes Wittgenstein in ‘Art after philosphy’: “The meaning is the use” I just read Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio in ‘Semiotics unbound’: the meaning of a sign is a response. (4)      

For me, Kosuth is the perfect answer to any museum director that wants to deny the meaning or function of art, even if the latter does it in jest. And, although, I’ve not come across a quote or text where Kosuth refers to his practice as a semiotic one I cannot see any difference in his investigations. Can you?

If you want to read more about Kosuth this is a nice start: Moma – Kosuth

(Another article, Semiotics As Art: Paul Ryan’s relational circuit & Threeing will follow in the near future).

(1) Siegel, Jeanne: Artwords. Discourse on the 60s and 20s. (Ann Arbour/Michigan 1985)

(2) Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” in Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1960–1990 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991)

(3) Joseph Kosuth, “Introduction” in Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1960–1990 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991)

(4) Introduction of Semiotics Unbounded, interpretive routes through the open network of signs (UTP, 2005)

© Thierry Mortier 2012

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